“The fear of death is the beginning of slavery.”1
The Wages of Fear is a prime example of my preference for integral plots. The story is in the premise. Southern Oil Company is in dire straits—one of their principal oil wells has caught fire and the only way to put it out is with hundreds of pounds of explosives…that are located hundreds of miles away. Four men in two questionably equipped trucks must transport 200 pounds of a highly volatile substance—nitroglycerin, which explodes with exposure to the slightest change in heat or motion—across 300 miles of rugged terrain. The prize? $2000 a head. Inherent in the premise is drama, suspense and themes of fear, courage, death, folly, corruption; nothing need be manufactured. It’s elemental. What unfolds is intrinsic, the logical outcomes of a very dangerous proposition. Contrast that with Shakespeare, whose drama is not integral, but comes about through the interplay between human forces, the intrigues and psychological states of characters who are usually political figures with something to lose, something to gain. Modern theater similarly works from the assumption of distance, the acknowledgment of the conceit by the manufacturer of it.
So we know from the outset that Clouzot doesn’t need to create drama out of thin air or cloud the tale with ideological overtones. He also doesn’t need to abet the story through the use of poetics—stylish movement, mise en scene, editing, music. He does use these devices and to masterful effect, but only to spice up a narrative that is already engaging from the outset. The themes that emerge are there in the source material; what Clouzot does is present the story with a naturalism and ease which allows them to stand in relief. So this isn’t grand storytelling in the traditional sense, but it’s experiential drama made frighteningly visceral. Clouzot crafted what is likely the most nerve-wracking picture ever committed to celluloid, something more suspenseful than Hitchcock’s entire oeuvre. And it’s pure suspense. It’s created out of an understanding that what makes people tic is the fear, the trepidation, the possibility of harm. It’s the potential for death, for malice that is so disturbing.
These themes are telescoped in the film’s opening shot (a lesson in film economy, this takes all of 20 seconds), which features cockroaches, loosely twined together, being tortured wantonly by a half-naked child. An ice-cream vendor passes, distracting the child away; the child returns to the captive playthings, but a vulture has taken their place. It’s sleight-of-pan; Clouzot does this with a single shot. Cruelty, shortsightedness, opportunism—all succinctly addressed in the opening seconds. Of course, that’s what you think about afterward. For Clouzot’s purposes, it serves the moment, sets the tone. This place of vultures, he’s convincing us from the start, is not a place you want to be, and it only gets worse.
The opening scenes run a bit long—it’s an hour in before the trucks start moving—but they are necessary to establish the milieu, the moods and the tone of conflict. The milieu is somewhere in South America in a desperate shantytown called Las Piedras; proliferated by foreign laborers, only there ostensibly because of big Southern Oil’s business concerns. The foreigners are mostly out of work, having been fired by SOC or because their services are not required at certain times of the year. One such foreigner is Mario (Yves Montand), a Corsican, who, much like the others we can assume, wound up in Las Piedras out of desperation, either outrunning ignominy or imprisonment. The oil jobs were attractive and that’s the only reason anyone is ever attracted to this place. The problem, as Mario points out to new arrival and fellow countryman Jo (Charles Vanel), is, “It’s like prison here. Easy to get in. ‘Make yourself at home.’ But there’s no way out.”
There are some confused notions that plague the first 35 minutes or so. There are gaps in logic which seem to suggest that a scene or two was excised in post-production. For instance, Mario’s new friend Jo engages in a feud with Mario’s old friend and roommate Luigi (Folco Lulli) (an amusing coincidence in nomenclature—but it’s actually Luigi who resembles Mario, the Nintendo icon) who is upset by Mario spending so much time with this new interloper. The feud comes to a head with little reason given as to why it should, then it’s quickly over. Neither of the characters seems to retain the experience, and Clouzot doesn’t make it any more relevant later on. From a character standpoint, it’s muddled and unconvincing—as is the character of Linda (Vera Clouzot, the director’s wife) who hardly matters. She loves Mario, begs him not to go ahead with the mission, but Mario could care less about her; the money and the promise of a ticket out of Las Piedras means a lot more. These scenes, as I mentioned, are there to flesh out the principal characters, their circumstances and the setting and also to hint at latent themes. They work in an after-the-fact way, meaning when the credits roll and you begin to think of the film critically, piecing it together in your mind, you forget about the strangeness of it, the bits of melodrama, retaining the thrust of the elements. It’s merely strange in the watching, but never boring.
Things change one afternoon when Mario rises out of bed and notices that a throng of townspeople have gathered in the square. They’ve heard rumors that some of their men were badly injured or killed in the incipient accident at the oil well, but SOC isn’t releasing the names of the victims (because, we discover, SOC doesn’t know their names). A truck arrives with armed guards porting the wounded and the dead and a desperate struggle ensues. Thus begins the second arc of conflict floating above the primary one: the exploitation of indigenous labor by white multinationals, a thesis confirmed when, near the end, with a happy ending seemingly on the way, non-English speaking actors begin incongruously speaking American English to one another in ridiculous, heightened tones, mimicking SOC’s bigwig, played by the only American cast in the film. The polemics seem obvious. What interests me is the desperation. The Wages of Fear casts a fairly appalling view of human economy – what money does to men, what men do for money and what men do to other men for money – one that fits snugly mid-century. As a result the themes and locale parallel those of 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre2, a film whose very currency was greed. While that classic dealt with the issue head-on, The Wages of Fear takes a more metaphysical route; as a result, it opens far more avenues for analysis.
The philosophical points of departure are endless, but I think the overriding impulse for the film and its source is a Marxist one. Rather than describing greed as an aspect of human nature, the film appears to be making a poetic assertion about essential human nature; unlike Marx, however, there’s no proposal of how one might transcend that nature. There’s only winning the game or losing it (whether one divides the labor or not), but no transcending or avoiding it. Southern Oil has clearly won; they’re at the top of this food chain. There’s no question of undermining them, bribing them, destroying them—only participating. There’s no question that men will be found willing to satisfy their whims, only a price need be named. What appears at first to be a rather poetically abstract title meant to grab prospective viewers turns out to be quite literal.
Clouzot tests his characters with physical games. How far are men willing to go? Well, asks Clouzot, how much can they take? The essential nature of the game creates the conditions for suspense-building, and the film doesn’t disappoint. The first major obstacle once the two duos, Mario with Jo and Luigi with Bimba, take the road is a long stretch of rough road known as washboard, so called because it’s nothing but little peaks and valleys spaced a few feet apart, more than enough dissonance to send the explosive-strapped trucks skyward. In order to make it across, the teams have to either speed up significantly to fly over it or slow down to crawl the expanse. One team chooses option A while the other opts for B. You guess what happens. From here, the setpieces only become more cruelly conceived and more tense. There are four of them in all. Together they form a mission so daunting it borders on the surreal. Clouzot’s pacing is assured, his sense of impressing danger keen, and his sadism is the sadism of a god playing dice with his children’s bloody lives.
All the more nerve-wracking, this is a largely quite film. Toward the end, however, is this bittersweet dialogue between Mario and Jo. Something like Sartre in this exchange. It’s brilliant and depressing:
Mario: “Where did you live in Paris?”
Jo: “On the Rue Galande.”
Mario: “No kidding! I know that street.”
Jo: “It was long ago.”
Mario: “That’s funny. You remember the tobacco shop at the corner?”
Jo: “Is it still there?”
Mario: “Sure is. Next to the hardware store.”
Jo: “In my time, there was a fence there.”
Mario: “You’re right. First there’s a fence.”
Jo: “I never knew what was behind it.”
Mario: “Nothing. Just an empty lot.”
Jo: “I’m okay. What a long street it is. I’m all out of breath.”
Not many films could get away with the sledgehammer dialogue that follows. It’s redundant, but this is a movie that cannot be stopped. It wants to wear you down and, most of all, it wants you to remember a few salient points:
Jo: “I’m trying to remember.”
Jo: “The fence. What was behind the fence?”
Jo: “There’s nothing!”
Or perhaps just one. An expertly injected dose of melodrama.
Returning to the opening quote adds yet another layer of philosophical mischief. The characters at times indeed seem to be more interested in the prospects of the game itself than the potential reward. Is it freedom they seek? Can it be attained by playing the game, rather than being beholden to it? There’s a scene where Bimba, the German son of a Nazi war criminal father, takes the time to shave in the truck, saying he wants his corpse to be presentable, in spite of the fact that, under the circumstances, death means complete bodily disintegration.
I don’t know that anything so crushingly sad has ever been so beautifully composed. Just reference the screenshots to see the magnificence of the art direction and cinematography. The locations are perfect; hard to believe it was filmed entirely in the south of France. A late scene has a busted crude oil pipe spilling its contents into a tremendous gash in the earth that our ‘heroes’ have to wade through; it’s the aftermath of a tremendous explosion that reduced the jungle trees to charred stumps—you’ll have to rub your eyes when you realize it wasn’t filmed on a studio set. This setpiece alone must have required tremendous preparation from and cooperation among crewmembers, not to mention the oil rig fire that rages in snippets of scenes throughout.
The success of the ending is dubious and long-debated. There are no surprises left at this point and the scene shows its hand straight away. Is it necessary? Perhaps not. Overwrought? Definitely. Yet it’s a logical coda and it matches the film’s melancholic thrust. However one regards the ending or the opening scenes, within The Wages of Fear there is a film too terrifying, too dramatically potent and allegorically rich to be missed.
1 Says the fictional Hagbard Celine, from Robert Anton Wilson’s novel “The Golden Apple”.
2 Curiously, Yves Montand, at this stage of his career, bore a striking resemblance to Bogey around the time he made the aforementioned film; the makeup and costumes of their respective characters as well as the black & white format of both films bear the resemblance out even more.